Each year, I write a post reminding everyone to get their skin checked. Why? Because skin cancer rates are higher than ever before and younger and younger women and men are being affected. Research suggests that people who start using tanning beds under the age of 35 increase their risk of malignant melanoma (skin cancer) by 75 percent.
75 percent isn’t a number you can ignore. Many of you may remember that I worked at a tanning salon at the end of high school and during college. I used to tan…a lot. I’m not proud of it—in fact, I’m ashamed of it. Not only ashamed that I used tanning beds, but ashamed that I told patrons it was good for them because of my training (back then, there weren’t such rigorous studies and we were told how great it was to get vitamin D—and how adequate vitamin D levels actually prevented some cancers).
The reality is that most young Americans don’t think about skin cancer. It’s not even something on most people’s to-do list to have their skin checked each year at the dermatologist. If you’ve never had skin problems, you’ve probably never even seen a dermatologist.
But I’m here to ask you—to beg you—to consider having your skin checked once a year. I go twice a year because I’ve been classified as a high-risk patient due to my skin history and tanning bed use, but most people only need to go once a year.
While my mom was in town visiting, I went and had my skin checked at my dermatologist and had two moles biopsied. One was on my back, the other on my inner left ankle. I got a call about a week later that my results came back abnormal on both moles and that the one on my back would need to be surgically removed.
My dermatologist told me that when skin biopsy results come back as “abnormal” it means that the biopsy contained abnormal cells classified as either mild, moderate or severe. It doesn’t mean that the moles are cancerous (they’re benign)—it means that they are at a higher risk of developing into melanoma over time—however, they also may never develop into melanoma, but that’s not a risk anyone should take.
The mole on my back was classified as “moderate” and the one on my ankle as “mild.” I had both removed for peace of mind (I was only scheduled to have the one on my back removed). I was shocked when I took off my dressing 24 hours later to see just how large of an area was removed. I had gotten punch biopsies before and you can barely tell once they’ve healed, but this is going to be an actual scar. But I’d ather have scars all over my body than the alternative.
I thought I’d share below some commonly asked questions about getting skin checks so some of you who have never been will know what to expect:
What can I expect during a skin check?
You will be asked to undress completely and wear one of those paper gowns. Then, the doctor will examine you from head-to-toe, and mark down any moles that are of concern and some that he or she wants to “watch” or monitor for growth/change. If there are some moles that the doctor feels should be biopsied, you will be given a local anesthetic with a needle to the area and will receive either a shave or punch biopsy. Your samples will then be sent to a lab for analysis. Most of the time, results come back benign.
How much does it cost?
If you have health insurance, a dermatologist is considered a specialist, so you would pay the co-pay listed on your insurance card under “specialist.”
What was the surgery like?
If you need to have moles removed, like I did, you get a local anesthetic via a needle to the affected area(s) and then the dermatologist will perform a brief surgery that involves removing the mole to the margins recommended by the pathologists who examined the mole for abnormalities.
Does the surgery hurt?
It does not hurt. You may feel slight discomfort in the area 12-24 hours later.
Why is it important to have your skin checked once per year?
Because moles can change and mutate over time and because melanoma, when caught early is very treatable. Late-stage melanoma can be difficult to treat, though there are some promising studies emerging about a drug being used to treat late-stage melanoma patients with good success rates.
How can I know if I have moles that may be cancerous/of concern?
The best thing you can do is to monitor your skin and become aware of any changes or irregularities in your moles. Here are some charts of the “ABCD’s” of moles: